Longform

Clemency for these six prisoners could save millions and serve justice -- so why won't Governor Ritter try it?

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Also turned down: Dietrick Mitchell, the sixteen-year-old driver in a 1991 fatal hit-and-run. The victim's family and prosecutors maintain that the killing was intentional and gang-related; Mitchell's supporters say it was accidental and that Mitchell was no gangbanger.

Jeanne Smith, director of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and chair of the juvenile clemency board, won't disclose how many cases the board has actually reviewed, what recommendations were made to Ritter, or what was involved in each decision. The process is confidential and not subject to open-records laws. But she acknowledges that the board has met more frequently than the two times a year required by Ritter's order, just to deal with the volume of applications.

"We're trying to look at these cases with a more focused eye toward the age of the person when they committed the crime, what the influences were, what their efforts toward rehabilitation have been," Smith explains. "Most of the time, there is input from victims as well. You have to look at the whole package."

Members of the adult and juvenile clemency advisory boards are appointed by Ritter. Both boards are dominated by people with law enforcement, prosecution and corrections backgrounds, though the juvenile board also features two psychologists, who weigh in on matters such as adolescent brain development. (The adult board, which has an even greater volume of applicants than Smith's board, currently has two vacancies.) Only inmates who've already served ten years or a third of their sentence are eligible, and the board is supposed to consider not simply a clean prison record, but catastrophic illnesses and "acts of heroism" behind bars. They're also expected to "serve the interests of justice" by weighing sentencing disparities and other inequities.

It's a tall and quite broad order, and no one has measured up to Ritter's criteria yet. "The juvenile board says it's a secret, but we think they've turned down eighteen so far," says Johnson. "I think we're going to be destroyed by our own cruelty. We don't want to help anybody, yet this prison spending is destroying us. It's eating up a lot of other services."

Cutting prison costs isn't among the specific objectives for Ritter's advisory boards. But prudent use of commutation powers can save money and reshape public policy at the same time.

The six candidates for commutation suggested below aren't necessarily the most deserving or heroic. Some are in the process of applying for clemency; some aren't eligible yet. All of them (with one possible exception) have done terrible things. But each one is representative of a different, fixable problem in the current prison system: drug offenders doing hefty sentences; illegal immigrants targeted for deportation but taking up cell space for petty crimes instead; prisoners paying for juvenile tragedies the rest of their adult lives; and more.

The cost savings projected for each inmate are based on the average current annual cost of housing a state inmate ($28,759) times the number of years until their probable release date — or life expectancy. This is a conservative figure, since many long-timers are housed in more expensive, high-security settings. Yet cutting the six loose tomorrow would save the state at least $4 million.

And it might, just might, serve the interests of justice.


DONALD ANDREWS

Age: 41

Convicted of: Burglary, attempted robbery, drugs

Sentence: 81 years

Sentence Discharge Date: January 17, 2066

Donnie Andrews is living a nightmare version of the "broken window" theory of crime control. Break a window — Andrews insists he didn't even do that — and end up in prison for decades.

"As far as I know, I am the only person in the United States with a 30-year sentence for a broken window," Andrews recently wrote in a letter to a state legislative committee. "There was a broken window, no crime of theft, nothing stolen or taken, no other damage seen, just a broken window that I did not break."

In 1989, Andrews was a twenty-year-old cokehead on a thieving binge that resulted in a stack of charges in Denver and three suburban counties. Although he allegedly flashed a gun in one attempted robbery, no one was injured in any of his heists, and Andrews describes himself as a non-violent offender.

But his crimes couldn't have come at a worse time. The War on Drugs was at its hysterical peak, and it probably didn't help that Andrews's ex-partner in burglary, Eugene Thompson, went on to infamy in a cocaine-fueled rampage of his own, killing two female hostages before taking his own life. Because Andrews was on bond for a drug case in Jefferson County when he committed other thefts, prosecutors pushed to "aggravate" the sentences and run them consecutively rather than concurrently.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast